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Help wanted is a sign of the times

The desperate plea on an Arby’s letterboard is a sign of the times: “Now hiring anyone.”

Lately, it seems that nearly every business is short-staffed. “Help Wanted” signs are ubiquitous, from fast-food joints to big-box stores, gas stations to grocers, warehouses to factories. In fact, job openings have soared to record levels even as people slowly trickle back into the post-pandemic workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 9.2 million jobs were open on May 31, the latest data available at press time and only slightly down from April’s high of 9.3 million.

Stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits have been blamed for keeping many workers on the sidelines. In June, Missouri was one of the first four states to halt extra federal unemployment payments. Gov. Mike Parson said it “incentivized people to stay out of the workforce.” A total of 26 states have followed suit as of July.

While additional financial aid may very well be the reason behind some self-imposed unemployment, I know it’s not that cut-and-dried for everyone. COVID created the perfect storm of labor issues. Some parents had to leave jobs because they didn’t have childcare options. Some seasoned employees decid­ed to accelerate retirement. Some people more at risk for the virus felt staying home was the better option. And some folks are still too afraid to go back to work in person.

Then there are those who simply want something better to go back to—improved working conditions, more opportunities, higher pay. A recent survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asked unemployed workers what would cause them to return to work. Some 63% said they would return for either a $1,000 hiring bonus or a 5% raise.

Agriculture is especially vulner­able to these challenges. Farmers will say it was hard enough to find help before the pandemic, and now it’s worse. Those looking to hire in the ag industry are competing with restaurants and warehouses offering $15-an-hour starting wages and signing bonuses plus less labor-intensive jobs and air conditioning.

No matter the underlying factors for the current labor issues, the dis­ruptions of the past year and a half have certainly created a new work­force reality. According to a recent report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange, businesses will be moti­vated to rapidly increase automation throughout the entire food supply chain. It won’t transform overnight, but CoBank analysts say larger investments in technology now will lead to much more automation over the next few years.

I saw an eye-opening example of this trend on my family’s recent vacation to Tampa, Fla. We shopped at a Walmart Neighborhood Market where self-checkout machines were the only option. No cashiers. Sim­ilarly, McDonald’s is installing touch­screen kiosks to replace order-takers, and Amazon is using robots to fill shipping boxes. Such moves mean the need for low-skilled, low-paid workers will continue to decrease.

Automating tasks formerly performed by humans isn’t the only answer to a tight labor market. Businesses must consider options to make their jobs more attractive to current and potential employ­ees. Looking for ways to increase efficiencies or improve productivity can allow the same employees to do more with less. Then, of course, there are the obvious enticements of higher salaries and bigger bonuses.

But perks go beyond a paycheck. Many businesses are implement­ing remote work policies, in part to compete with other employers who are doing the same. Multiple surveys suggest Americans are eager to work from home at least part of the time, and the option is an attractive incentive for recruit­ment and retention. Stay-at-home orders during the height of the pandemic showed that companies could continue to operate success­fully with a number of employees working remotely.

Still, the pandemic’s effect on the workforce may linger for some time. Analysts say that hiring challenges and elevated wage inflation will likely last into 2022. The good news is that they also expect the labor market to start becoming more fluid this fall, as COVID-19 vaccination numbers rise, schools reopen and more states roll off the unemploy­ment insurance supplements.

In the meantime, we can take a cue from New Mexico’s Hospi­tality Association, which recently launched a campaign asking the public to exercise patience with businesses that are dealing with a staffing shortage. “Be Kind,” the campaign urges—good advice when patronizing any business, short-staffed or not.

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